• "The aim of YarnUp Confidential is to create a dedicated Aboriginal call centre": Alex Ferguson. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
This is a letter from Alex Ferguson the Executive Director of Lifeline Central West Inc, to the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Nigel Scullion, calling on the government to support its proposal to develop a national call centre of 100 fully trained Indigenous suicide prevention counsellors.
Alex Ferguson

The Point
10 Mar 2016 - 4:49 PM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2016 - 6:28 PM

Dear Minister,

I write to you today to set out a strategy to help address the continuing problems faced by Aboriginal communities in this country.

I present this strategy not from a background in mental health or counselling, but from a lifetime's work in industry with most of that time in senior management positions.

By way of background, I joined Lifeline Central West [LLCW] as CEO some 7 years ago to restructure the organisation and introduce some new systems.

LLCW covers about 1/3 of regional NSW generally from Lithgow in the east to Bourke in the west. It has 3 Lifeline 13 11 14 call centres based in Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo. It also provides problem gambling and problem financial counselling services to that footprint under contract to the NSW Government. Both of these contracts have a strong Aboriginal focus.

Lifeline is an essential charity operating through 36 call centres Australia wide. This financial year it will take over 1,000,000 contacts, many of which are from people with immense issues which, in too many cases can lead to suicide.

The national suicide rate is climbing through 2,600 deaths [more than twice the national road toll] with no sign of it decreasing. The causes are many and would be well understood by all levels of government because of the prevalence of suicide and other significant issues faced by all members in their own electorates.\

In broad terms there is nothing terribly pleasant working as a telephone counsellor in the Lifeline network except for the satisfaction gained from assisting a person in trouble. Lifeline counsellors work in the "here and now" providing immediate support, anonymously 24/7. Hence my observation that Lifeline is an essential organisation. Essential to all those people who need help.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics in concert with the National Coronial Service can give us a conservative total of completed suicides each year. However, we have no statistics on the number of callers to Lifeline 13 11 14 that are continuously saved from that fate.

It is in this context and from my 7 years experience in the world of Lifeline that I have spent considerable time in thought over the broader problems faced by the Aboriginal people. Statistically rural regional Australia experiences a rate of suicide 3.7 times greater than urban Australia.

We know that Aboriginal communities experience rates greater than this. In our region of NSW, I estimate that we are losing approximately 7 people to suicide each week, many in circumstances involving such issues as domestic violence and substance abuse.

As the LLCW footprint covers many Aboriginal clusters and communities, I recognise that all of the same issues that drive this problem in the non-Aboriginal sector are present in Aboriginal life, and in many cases amplified because, in so many instances, Aboriginal communities feel disenfranchised, marginalised and very often, socially isolated.

In a 2014 Human Rights Commission for Children Report, it was noted that “Indigenous suicide in Australia ranks the 12th highest in suicide rates worldwide", and "concerning numbers of Indigenous children and young people are dying of suicide. It is especially disturbing to know that often these are children who have experienced significant abuse and disadvantage, and are known to child protection authorities". Surely this must form the context into which all of our collective skills and efforts must be focused.

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From all of the above [and much more], I believe that we can take the proven Lifeline 13 11 14 crisis line model which is so highly regarded in the non-Aboriginal community, and give it an Aboriginal focus. Aboriginal telephone counsellors trained under the Lifeline structure would create an Aboriginal to Aboriginal confidential crisis and support call centre augmented by a multi focussed outreach service. With the right promotion, I am convinced that it would be possible, over time to reverse many of the negative components of Aboriginal life while providing an emergency safety net for those in immediate danger.

In discussions held in Dubbo recently, an Aboriginal leader suggested that a good name for the project would be YarnUp Confidential. We have subsequently adopted this name and registered it with ASIC. The general aim of the project would be "Through the modification of the national Lifeline 13 11 14 methodology, create a confidential conversation between the broader Aboriginal community on issues that are important to their communities daily existence, addressing cultural sensitivities while, in many cases, provide a heightened level of personal security"

The mechanism is straight forward. LLCW trained Aboriginal counsellors working from a dedicated call centre in Dubbo employing a discrete telephone number and support by a network of trained outreach facilitators. This is not difficult. LLCW already has a call centre in Dubbo. We already train telephone counsellors in Dubbo. Lifeline has a significant profile in the Central West and YarnUp Confidential would meet with universal acceptance because the main tenant of the project is so easily understood. YarnUp Confidential will be a division of Lifeline Central West Inc.

The aim of YarnUp Confidential is to create a dedicated Aboriginal call centre. Train 100 Aboriginal counsellors and in-shift supervisors. Attract and train an Aboriginal management and support team with a major focus on training and outreach. In the completed model which would take approximately 12 months to achieve, the centre would be capable of taking in the order of 70,000 calls per year on a 24/7 roster. [These outcomes have been estimated by applying existing Lifeline output figures. In the context of YarnUp Confidential, they must be seen as hypothetical given the range of variables that could/would impact on the project].

In the start-up phase YarnUp Confidential would draw on existing and experience LLCW managers, trainers and supervision. Under the Lifeline counsellor accreditation model, new counsellors must complete a range of subjects, some delivered by E-learning before transitioning to the phone's for a further 16 hrs of live, closely supervised training. From there, trainees need to complete a further 92hrs on the phones before they are accredited as Lifeline Telephone Counsellors. There will be no short cuts in the training for Aboriginal students. They will be trained and accredited like any other trainee. Depending on educational standards, computer literacy, speech etc, there may be a need for ancillary training through TAFE etc. As I would like to see the support component of YarnUp Confidential expanded to cover such topics as:

- Drug and Alcohol
- Domestic Violence
- Problem Gambling
- Financial Counselling
- Depression and Anxiety
- Health
- Trauma and Abuse

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There will be a need to train the YarnUp Confidential counsellors in more depth in these subjects and the referral services which are computer driven through the VOIP telephone system refined so that Yarnup Confidential can play a coordinating role for the many excellent services already available to Aboriginal communities across Australia. Over time, with the development of trust, it would be possible to instigate a call back follow up system with those clients who have engaged with YarnUp Confidential.

It is important that a YarnUp Confidential counsellor is seen as a role model and success in the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike. The counselling role will be a full time job with pathways for advancement to supervision, training and outreach. A provision has been made in the draft budget for uniforms for all staff. It is important that YarnUp Confidential staff can be identified in the community and recognised for the good work they will do therein engendering self-esteem.

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Putting YarnUp Confidential together is not particularly difficult. There will be a time lag for trainees to achieve accreditation but a basic service, probably covering an 8 hr shift 6 days per week could be in place by the end of March 2016 with a full service operating by the end of that year. In the start-up phase any excess counselling capacity not used in the Yarnup Confidential program can simply switch to Lifeline 13 11 14 given the counsellors would be fully accredited to do so. Lifeline would be happy to receive their support.

A draft budget is attached. It estimates the annual cost of running YarnUp Confidential at $10,000,000 with $8,500,000 going towards wages. This proposal estimates the employment of 118 people in a fully developed model. Funding the start-up will be based on best intentions matched against KPI's and that which has been achieved. Lifeline's computer based technology already provides a wide range of statistics and KPI'S which could be adopted in total or modified for the purposes of YarnUp Confidential. Gender, age, community, subject of call, duration of the call etc are all possible.

Lifeline Central West Inc has been providing counselling support to the communities of the central west for 43 years. It is fully audited and has a long and successful history of providing services to both the State and Federal governments. LLCW has a competent Board of Governance which would be enlarged to accommodate 2 Aboriginal appointments.

Should Yarnup Confidential receive broad support from State and Federal governments, a funding package will need to be negotiated. I make three [3] points:

- The project will need to be considered in a broad time frame, possibly 10 years. Anything less than that would in my view be pointless. The issues embodied in this project have been in existence for a very long time and are not amenable to a "quick fix".

- There are four [4] States and one [1] Territory broadly encapsulated in this program. If the agreed annual cost is in the order of $10m, a contribution of $1m per annum from each state and territory with the balance contributed from the Federal Government would seem equitable.

- Over recent years, the farming communities across the inland of Australia have suffered catastrophic impacts caused by drought and the interruption of the live cattle trade to Indonesia. There have been many suicides and significant community dislocation. With some focussed marketing, these communities could benefit from the counselling services offered by YarnUp Confidential because the YarnUp Confidential counsellors will, in the first instance be fully accredited Lifeline counsellors capable of assisting all people, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, seeking help.

Lifeline Australia currently receives financial support from the Federal Government for telephone calls, both fixed line and mobiles. The basis of this support is that all calls to 13 11 14 from anywhere in Australia only cost the dialler 50c with the balance of the cost met by government. Given the remoteness of the target market, difficulties in telecommunication and the severity of the issues that YarnUp Confidential is proposing to address, I believe it would be prudent to set a zero cost to all calls made to YarnUp Confidential's headline number from anywhere in Australia removing a possible impediment to the making of a call.

I have been advised that differences in language across Aboriginal communities could be an issue. I believe this could well be the case. I would hope that calls to YarnUp Confidential could be mostly undertaken in English [with some major differences in accents]. I would also expect that if Yarnup Confidential is a success, the duplication of this model would be relatively easy. Lifeline Australia has facilities in Darwin, Western Queensland, Adelaide, Alice Springs and Perth.

A major, targeted publicity program will need to accompany this program. LLCW, who enjoys a long held relationship with Prime7 television, has held discussions with the station and, too their great credit, have agreed to partner YarnUp Confidential. They have coverage in all states except the Northern Territory. I would negotiate with Chanel 7 to fill this void. Print and radio media would, on the basis of their past support for LLCW add their capacity and expertise to the promotion of the program.

In conclusion Minister, the salient points of YarnUp Confidential are:
- Aboriginals helping Aboriginals
- Existing proven systems
- Existing training processes
- 118 new Aboriginal jobs in Dubbo NSW
- A very real opportunity to bring a new focus onto an entrenched problem.

I have taken the liberty of copying this letter to existing stake holders. This is an important project focusing on very serious issues affecting a great many communities. I look forward to your response in due course.

Yours sincerely,
A.S [Alex].Ferguson
Executive Director
Cc The Honourable Troy Grant
Member for Dubbo and Deputy Premier of NSW
Mark Coulton MP
Federal Member for Parkes
Councillor Mathew Dickerson
Mayor of Dubbo City Council
Mr Darren Toomey
CEO Dubbo Local Aboriginal Land Council
Mr. Bill Miller
Chairperson Lifeline Central West
Mr Brett Goodridge
CEO Lifeline Australia

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636,Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.